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Research Report

Process Improvement Primer

Resources for simplifying, standardizing, and transforming administrative work

Use this resource to identify opportunities to rethink your institution’s existing processes. We detail a five step process from beginning to end.

So you’re ready to fix a problem

In an era of constrained budgets and ever-increasing support and compliance responsibilities, leaders in higher education administrative units are seeking gains in efficiency. Colleges and universities are losing patience with paper-based processes, shadow systems, duplicative tasks, unnecessary handoffs, and redundant approvals, all of which waste valuable resources that could otherwise be devoted to more strategic activities that advance the institutional mission.

Veterans of process improvement initiatives attest to the positive results of reengineering the work crisscrossing campus: error reduction, risk mitigation, greater staff capacity and morale, and improved customer satisfaction, just to name a few. The step-by-step guides and resources in this primer are designed to help your campus realize these objectives and lay the foundation for a culture of continuous improvement.

Step 1: Assemble the right people

In carrying out process improvement work, the most successful institutions bring together cross-functional teams made up of people with different perspectives and approaches—but all committed to making a process simpler, more standardized, and beneficial to the customer. Process improvement teams are tasked with mapping the current state, collecting as-is data, redesigning the process, and developing and implementing an action plan for reaching the future state—in other words, the remainder of the steps in this playbook.

Ideally, teams should have between five and eight people. The executive sponsor, in conjunction with the process improvement coordinator, should use the team roster on the next page to select “essential” team members, leaving room around the table for other candidates if the process or solution under consideration would benefit from their input and expertise. Remember that the members of the process improvement team will likely change for each process you redesign. While the roles described on the next page will be the same, you will want to find the right people who understand the particular process under consideration.

See the Step


We need to simplify processes because that’s our responsibility— every time we have an inefficient process, there’s a student or parent who is taking on another job, or delaying retirement, or taking out a second mortgage on their house. They’re paying for our time, and they’re paying for our processes.


Chief Business Officer

Public Research University

Step 2: Map the current state

Mapping the current state of the process under review requires the expertise of your process improvement team. Together, you will articulate what actually happens on your campus today along every step of the process. You may discover that some units do steps differently or that off-the-books work-arounds, shortcuts, and shadow systems are involved. Note these instances as areas for improvement.

Keep an eye out for overtly manual operations as automation opportunities. Record any ideas for use in futurestate mapping.

While there is an art and science to process mapping—and there may be people on your team or on campus with that skill set—complete mastery is not necessary. However, between all of the handoffs, decision points, and units involved in complex processes, mapping can easily become overwhelming. If you are new to this step, follow the guidance across the next several pages.

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Step 3: Collect current-state data

Upon mapping the current-state process, opportunities for improvements will likely become apparent, particularly if you used some of the “additional annotations” guidance in the previous step (if not, consider going back to add them). Before rushing toward solutions, though, you must collect baseline data on the process, whether articulated as a measurement of throughput, customer service quality, error rate, or another metric.

Goal: KPIs for every process improvement project

This step is critical for demonstrating progress and getting credit for your work upon introducing the future state. Consider the common metrics below as possibilities for data collection. Not all of these key performance indicators (KPIs) will be applicable for each process. The data collection worksheet on the next page will help you collect process data in a more systematic way.

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Step 4: Design the future state

At last, the fun part. Designing and mapping the future-state process seeks to generate an ideal scenario for the who, what, where, when, and why of a process. Whether you are removing, reordering, reassigning, or even adding steps, the goal is to create a better way to get the job done.

Some campuses may pursue a “greenfield” approach, in which a team designs a process from scratch. Another way is to assess the current process for reengineering opportunities. In that case, teams should walk through each step of the process, using the questions below to test opportunities for improvement.

Common problems, common opportunities

  1. Opportunity #1: Reduce unnecessary steps

    Eliminate duplicative or nonvalue-added steps to free up time and capacity. Read More

  2. Opportunity #2: Parallel processing

    Complete prerequisite steps concurrently to expedite the process. Read More

  3. Opportunity #3: Batching

    Rearrange and resequence task order by unit ownership to avoid fragmentation. Read More

  4. Opportunity #4: Shared services

    Transactional activities completed in low volumes consolidated into one unit. Read More

Step 5: Develop an implementation plan

After you have designed the future state, you need to create a plan for how to get there. The scope of this plan will depend on the complexity of the process you have improved and how many departments are involved. In developing the action plan, continue to communicate with your executive sponsor, who can offer guidance, approve resource needs, and clear roadblocks. Consider the four areas below as a starting point.

When introducing change, there is no such thing as too much communication. Keep an eye out for discrepancies between system, campus, and department policies. Articulate improvement proposals in terms of institutional goals and priorities. Reconvene the process improvement team at 30-, 60-, and 90-day intervals to assess progress.

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Process Improvement Coordinator Resources

If you have been handed the mantle of serving as a process improvement coordinator for your campus, congratulations! This section is for you. Your time and attention can amplify the likelihood of successful process improvement projects. Depending on the complexities of the project, additional legwork may be necessary to:

  • Secure buy-in from stakeholders
  • Ensure that team gatherings run smoothly
  • Bring the future-state process to fruition with the necessary financial, technological, and staffing resources

Eventually, your campus may decide to dedicate full-time resources to coordinating process improvement activities. Private-sector experiences affirm this approach: although 75% of companies are pursuing some kind of process improvement work, only 10% achieve expectations without dedicated resources. The dividends of designating a coordinator are clear, offering:

  • One-track mind: Focuses on strategic priorities without getting bogged down in other responsibilities
  • Silo-busting authority: Enables an end-to-end perspective beyond the blinders of any one unit
  • Local expertise: Ensures long-term benefits by developing local expertise and partnerships

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Process improvement compendium

Campuses new to process improvement may question whether the effort will actually lead to tangible results. Evidence that other campuses have successfully tackled a range of projects—simple or complex, isolated to a single unit, or spanning many departments—can help secure buy-in among skeptics and spark ideas about where and how to make the next fix.

The following pages include short case studies of commonly broken processes across six functional areas. While a process will not be “broken” in the same way on every campus, the examples included in this compendium share common points of breakdown that may ring true to stakeholders on your campus.

How to use this compendium

  • “”

    Process breakdown

    This section lists common reasons for broken processes. Consequently, breakdown points such as “non-value-added steps” and “unnecessary approvals” appear throughout the compendium as a reminder to look out for these failure paths in other processes where improvement efforts are underway.

  • “”

    The problem

    While customers might complain about a process in any number of ways, this section describes the root cause of the problem as manifest on a real campus. Knowing the root cause of the problem means that your solution can target that specific issue, yielding the greatest improvements.

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